Top Tips for the Older Voice

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Today’s title is the subject line of an email I received recently from LABBS Chair, Natalie Feddon. She had been out and about visiting choruses, as is her wont, and had met with a group of ladies whose average age is a shade over 80, and asked me on their behalf if I had any technical advice for their singers, with an eye also to supporting the many other association members round the country who are singing joyfully into their later years.

So, the first and most important thing, they are already doing: keep singing! Singing is like any other skill: the best way to maintain it is to use it regularly. That said, both physical and cognitive capacities do become more fragile with advancing years, so things we once took for granted might over time need a little more care.

So, I’ll start with a general principle, and then make some specific practical suggestions.

Gentle Stretching is the overall principle that underlies all the specific points below. There’s the literal, physical sense in which gentle stretches will help keep your vocal instrument in good shape, but the metaphorical sense is possibly more important. Whatever you can currently manage in your singing – range, breath, music learning, stamina – you need to regularly take yourself to the edge of your capacities and then stretch just a little further. Don’t push yourself hard, that’s tiring and counterproductive, but do make sure you keep in touch with the maximum you can do.

The point is that if you stay too long away from your boundaries, the boundaries tend to contract to match. This is true for people of any age, but as we get older, it becomes harder to regain lost ground, so the impact of getting out of practice is greater. Stepping a bit beyond your comfort zone on a regular basis keeps you growing and learning, and promises a sense of achievement in exchange for making the effort.

With that in mind, here are some specific points, organised under the headings I use to plan vocal warm-ups.

  • Body. It is a truism that the voice works better when given support by the rest of the body. It produces a better sound and gets tired less quickly. So, all the things that people tell you about keeping active being good for your health are also true for your voice. Getting out for a walk helps your singing as well as all other aspects of your wellbeing.

    In terms of when you actually sing, make sure you get your body feeling engaged and active before you start. Gentle stretches are good here. And always aim to stand or sit actively to sing, with your feet well connected into the ground, and (if seated) your sitting bones grounded in the seat. Feel like your whole body is involved in the act of singing

  • Breath. A deep-seated breath is how your bodily support connects to your voice. Bubbling is always a good exercise for this, since it’s impossible to do without connecting into the breath. Another good exercise for preparing to sing is to breathe out for increasing lengths of time (count of 4, count of 8, count of 12…four times table to 20) with a relax-refill breath for two between each. You can do this to a bubble or hiss too.
  • Phonation. That is, the actual contact between your vocal folds that makes the sound. The goal is not to push your larynx but let it vibrate freely – that way it tires much less. Once again, bubbling is good for this, as are any SOVT exercises. If your voice is feeling fragile, the classic exercise is hum/sing through a straw into a glass (or bottle) of water – singers stole this one from voice therapists and it’s really good for rebalancing a tired larynx
  • Range. Vocal range is a function of how flexible your larynx is, so this is one where gentle stretching is valuable in its literal, physical sense. Make sure you warm up to the extremes of your range, not just the notes you’ll need for the music you have in hand. Sirening – i.e. swooping freely up and down throughout your range is the classic exercise here. Do it to an NG hum (as in the end of the word ‘sing’) for a gentle but effective workout of your range.
  • Ear. Many people experience some degree of hearing loss in later life, and for this you really need the support of an audiologist. Do let them know you sing, as it will make a difference to the kinds of therapeutic aids they recommend for you. In chorus, experiment with your position relative to other singers and distance from them to work out how best to hear what others are doing.
  • Brain. The best form of gentle stretching for the brain is learning, so make sure you keep engaging with new repertoire, not just singing the songs you already know. If you’re singing in a genre like barbershop that includes choreographic gesture as part of the performance tradition, then coordinated movement is also really good for the brain. The ideal things to be working on to keep the brain moving are things that you can’t get right first time, but can achieve with a few repetitions.
  • Ensemble. Mutual awareness and collaboration to make the music work together is at the heart of harmony singing. Social connection is also strongly correlated with wellbeing and life expectancy, so for this one, we come back to the first point: keep doing what you’re doing. Not only is it a deeply satisfying way to spend your life, it will keep that life going for longer so you get to make more music.

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